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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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It's impossible to speak of Edwardian era art without considering the life and work of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), whose name stands firmly as the greatest portrait painter of his time

He was known for his superior technical skills which he manifested from an early age, most notably through a fluid and gracious brushwork.

He devoted his life intensely and absolutely to honing his craft, and his epigraph reads “To Paint is To Pray”. His work was in general somewhat anachronistic, in the sense that he developed a particular style of realism more in line with the old masters than with his impressionistic contemporaries.

The Greatest American Portrait Painter Was Born in Europe

Even though Sargent is known as a leading figure of the American fine arts, he was actually born in Florence, Italy, and lived his early years in Europe.

However, he always regarded himself as American, since both his parents were both American travelers whose love for Europe turned them into expatriates.

His father as a doctor called Fitzwilliam Sargent, and his mother’s name was Mary Newbold Singer; they married in 1850 and initially traveled to Europe to escape the sorrow of their firstborn’s child.

From an early age, John Singer Sargent showed a great affinity to the arts and manifested a notable talent in drawing and painting. He was always encouraged by his parents to further his talents, and his mother in particular was known to entice him to sketch every day.

This solid dedication made him develop notable technical skill and artistic fluency from an early age, as clearly demonstrated in his drawings from that time.

His early artistic education took place in his birth town of Florence, where he enrolled the Accademia delle Belle Art (Academy of Fine Arts) as a teenager.

During this time, John made such a strong impression of his artistic merits that his father decided to live with him in Paris from 1874 onwards, to give his son a chance of furthering his craft in the place then regarded as the European capital of arts. It was there that the young, promising John Singer Sargent began his adult life.

Paris and the Road to Artistic Mastery

During his formative years in Paris, John Singer Sargent would study under Carolus-Duran, a young painter with a particular style that would deeply influence Sargent in his own approach to art.

Carolus-Duran believed that lively paintings required no under sketches, so he encouraged his pupils to paint directly on the white canvas without hesitation.

This method leads to very energetic and powerful paintings, and coupled with Sargent's innate technical skill it would bring about his particular brand of highly refined realistic paintings with a deep emotional undertone.

It was during his artistic formation in Paris that Sargent finally visited the United States for the first time in 1876. He was at the time 20 years old, and spent a few months exploring his parent’s birthplaces along with his mother and sister. This journey was instrumental to Sargent’s development, since it was then he realized he too was passionate about traveling and exploring new places.

Upon returning to Europe, he started visiting other countries there as a means for self-development as well as to spark his artistic flame. This is clearly visible from his body of work, which features many travels scenes and paintings made by him while traveling.

A few years later in 1879, the artist started showing his first signs of ripening. He made a portrait of his teacher that won him an honorable mention at the Paris Salon in 1879, and this was arguably the ignition of his career as he started growing reputable as a highly skilled portrait artist.

Through the years that followed, he would keep submitting different kinds paintings to the Salon, but it was his portraits that steadily gained him notoriety. He was, however, a non-conformist whose unique visions were bound to cause scandal in those conservative times.

The Fall From Grace as Provoked by Madame X

One of the first biggest artistic scandals triggered by Sargent’s work was sparked by a painting he called Madame X, which he submitted to the Salon in 1884.

Looking at this painting from our modern perspective it may seem like a very innocent artwork, with its depiction of a woman in a formal black dress. It's only by reflecting on the standards of the time that one can realize just how provoking and scandalous this painting actually was, back then.

Madame X is actually the portrait of Madame Gautreau's daughter, an influent American socialite who commissioned the painting from the increasingly popular young artist John Singer Sargent. It was through his particular stylistic choices that Sargent created something that dented his rising reputation, even though it now stands as one of his strongest masterpieces.

This painting is unusual for the time because it emphasizes subject’s sensuality, although in an extremely subtle manner. This young lady is depicted wearing a low-cut black dress which is nearly sleeveless – a big provocation for a time when shoulders were regarded as highly sensual areas.

To make matters worse… in the original version one of the straps in the dress was falling off the shoulder, a detail the author was forced to correct immediately. The moral damage had been made, and even after getting “corrected” the painting was no longer deemed of being worthy of display... neither was the author.

It was this scandal that made Sargent want to leave Paris, as he felt he was being constrained artistically by an excessively conservative society.

He decided to turns his attention to England, where he would start living permanently from 1886 onwards. Things didn’t pan out too gracefully for Sargent though, as his reputation for being a scandalous troublemaker made potential clients wary of hiring his services, in fear that Sargent’s non-conformism would lead to a recurrence of the Madame X scandal.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and a New American Start

In spite of his scandalous reputation, Sargent only became more confident in his work. He decided he merely had to find a more progressive audience, and that is exactly what he found when he traveled to the United States between 1887 and 1890. There, he realized that Americans seemed to cherish his bold style.

He started mingling with the American high society, and soon found many willing sitters and his commissions quickly started to grow in number and price.

It was around 1886 that Sargent created another one of his major masterpieces, called Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. This impressive painting showed two girls carrying lanterns in a field of flowers, and its vivid style combining tradition and impressionism was so attractive that it thawed the heart of Europeans.

He was once again regarded favorably by the European elites, and from this time his reputation was irrevocably grounded as a major artist.

Portraits, no More! Sargent Reinvents Himself

Sargent kept thriving as a portrait artist and growing in reputation until around 1907, when he made a shocking move: right when he was at the height of his popularity as a highly sought after portrait artist, he decided he was bored of painting portraits and switched focus to other styles of work.

He started getting involved in muralism and watercolors, and embraced these artistic endeavors fully through the rest of his life.

John Singer Sargent died in April 14, 1925, when he was aged 69. Behind him he left a towering body of work, comprised of many legendary portraits, as well as thousands of beautiful watercolors depicting scenes he came across during his travels.

He lived his life in his own terms, and his legacy stands proudly as the work of one of the great modern masters in painting.